Using Awareness to Lead With Your Best Self


My wife and I tend to display the yin and yang of life. With her State of the State address tomorrow, she is completely focused on big picture problems and opportunities. Meanwhile, I have found myself at the other extreme, involved in multiple conversations about the microcosm of leadership, not about leading large groups, but about leading your very own self. Let me share one of those conversations.

I was talking to a woman who was frustrated by the number of people – professional and personal – putting demands on her. As a result, she was dropping balls, being short with people, and feeling increasingly unhappy in her work. I asked her about one of these troublesome commitments which didn’t seem like it should be so important. “Why not get out of that?” I asked. “I can’t. I made a commitment,” came the answer. “I appreciate that,” I offered, “but they may well understand and you can help them figure out who might fill in for you.” She said, “No. I just can’t do that.”

We talked for a little while longer, and she saw the trap she was making for herself. She didn’t want to let anybody down, but the result was she wasn’t keeping up, and all the pressures were getting her down. She realized that she was afraid others wouldn’t like her, and it was crippling her ability to succeed. I offered her a suggestion that I thought might help her lead with her best self.

Her fear was about not being liked, but we all have our own fear thoughts, largely unconscious, repetitive messages that play in our heads and keep us from doing our best. Sometimes it goes like this: “I really don’t deserve to succeed,” or it’s: “Things always fall apart for me, so they probably will this time, too.” I’ll bet you’ve got such fear-thoughts, too.

Well, here’s the coaching I offered this young woman. See if you can just become aware when that thought is in play and just notice it. It may have a lot of frustration or resentment behind it, or it might not. You may act on it – trying not to let somebody else down – or not. But just simply notice the thought. Don’t judge yourself for having it. Don’t try to change the thought. Don’t dissect it. Just notice it.

Here’s the wonderful thing that can happen with this practice over time. You start to realize, “hmmmm, if I am noticing this little mechanism, this tape playing, this reflex reaction, then that thought is not ME, but is a rut or pattern that my mind follows.” And so, a different you starts to stand apart from that mechanistic thinking; at first that “you” just observes. But increasingly that “you” that is observing will start to have a choice to think differently and to act. For instance, this woman could begin to say to herself: “Well, I could respond to that voice that says,’so and so will be really mad at me if I say no,’ but her new observing self could continue, “it’s also possible that person will not be mad, or that I can manage their frustration; and either way I can choose how I will respond.” Over time, noticing starts to free you to choose what you really want.

Why not click on my blog site and share your thoughts about the mental tapes that may undermine you, and how to use awareness to . . .

Lead with your best self!


  • I suffer from this malady as well, and do try to step back and recognize it when it happens (as my father says, “sink and think”). However, it’s very difficult to do in a stressful situation, for example, when someone is asking you to do something for them when your plate is already over-full. I’m learning, not necessarily to say no, but at least to say, “Let me check my calendar and get back to you”!

    • My best advice to try to avoid the ‘over-commitment’ trap comes from a parenting class. Children (like people trying to get you to agree to something) will often pressure you to make an instant decision. When you change the dialogue, and say “I’d like to think about that and get back to you”, your decision comes more from a position of power than a knee-jerk reaction. If you want to say ‘yes’, you can do it gladly. If your decision is ‘no’, those who are asking will understand that you took time to make a conscious decision and will not continue to apply pressure. And sometimes, you can find a way to say yes to part of the ask, without taking on the whole commitment.

  • In organizational strategic planning we often talk about ‘core values’ and that all thinking, planning and action should connect around these core values. I have found it helpful to understand for myself, personally, what my core values are. By identifying those ‘pillars’ that are soul-food, that we are committed to at a deeply emptional and spiritual level we have, in fact discovered, pillars to which we should dedicate and funnel our energies. These are actually energy builders! It seems the more we give the more energy and commitment we have to continue to give more. Still, it is important to give time and energy to some of the other things around you however, by understanding what your true pillars are it becomes much easier to decide what to give energy to and what you can say no to.

    • Thanks for saying it all….your comments are my exact sentiments/beliefs. I am so overwhelmed with work because I have taken on so much…missing out on weekends with my family…that now I just DON’T want to do any of it. So fed up with doing all the things that does NOT allign with my core values. Thanks for helping me set my priorities straight TODAY and only work on things that will feed my soul.

      • I can’t agree more. Of course, we all want to be liked and respected in our work. However, people pleasing behavior, a character defect of mine, does get in the way of making good decisions.

        I like the three A’s – awareness, acceptance, action

        Before I can change my patterns, I have to become aware of them. Once recognized, I need to accept that I actually do these things. Then and only then, can I spring into action – change my thinking, act even if it is difficult because of how I might be judged if my action is the next right thing to do.

  • I do this same thing, a lot. It is like I am trying to solve all the world’s problems instead of just taking care of myself first and foremost. This can cause other problems, besides just stress, it can affect your physical being. Thanks for reminding me that all I need to say is, “I will check my calendar.”

  • I too suffer from the “can’t say no and everything must be perfect” syndrom and in fact, it got so bad this summer I was near a breakdown. After much internal searching and a great counselor I have learned to put myself any my mental and physical health before anything else, work, friends etc. I highly recommend putting yourself first, the end result is a happiness that can’t be measured.

  • This is what we learn in our Yoga and Meditation class! This ancient Indian science is all about awareness of the mind. It’s about training your mind to watch your thoughts and just be a witness to it. Being aware at each step is the key. Ignore them and they will vanish.

    Wonder if you’ve read any books on it. Thanks for sharing this new system of thought with your readers. Hope each individual can explore this new path to achieve peace of mind and peace all around oneself.

  • It is interesting that a group of leading school superintendents in the state is having this same discussion. Our job is to oversee the big picture of the school district and it is often difficult to say “no” to the people we serve. Yet it is critical to make time to reflect and learn in order to do the best job for our kids and families with the reality of limited resources. We constantly remind ourselves to stick to working on the “high leverage” projects that benefit our students, and to not try to do everything.

  • So true. It is easy to wear ruts in you thinking — the key is to make the ruts positive ones! If you believe your spouse doesn’t really care, or you boss doesn’t like you, your mind will automatically look for evidence to reinforce those beliefs. However, if you love and trust those who are close to you, your mind will be open to the evidence of thier love and respect. In the past, I have worn the negative ruts in my mind, but I am much happier now that I keep reminding myself to be thankful for all the ways I am blessed.

  • I, too, am overscheduled and overcommitted. In my desire to help, I take on way too much. Thanks for the reminder to step back and truly examine my motives in saying “yes” to one more committment.

  • Dan, thanks for pointing out those undermining thoughts we all experience from time to time. The act of noticing how we’re thinking becomes difficult at times because, at the very time that we are trying to notice what we’re thinking, we’re still thinking! Alternatively, I’ve come to understand that we’ve been given a very accurate guidance system to help us understand whether certain thoughts are being helpful to us, and that guidance system is our feelings. If, when we are having a certain thought, we can stop ourselves and check in with whether we are feeling good or feeling not-so-good about that certain thought, we can then purposefully choose the next thought so that we feel better. The habit we form in doing this is to constantly choose a better-feeling thought. Over time, we will choose not to entertain those thoughts which give us discomfort. It’s taken me some time to retrain myself to do this, but it is well worth it!

    • I, too, use my “feelings” as a gauge. The most helpful question I have learned to ask myself when I am feeling “bad” is, “What am I thinking that is making me feel this way?” (I know my fear, frustration, or whatever the “bad” is is a result of my thoughts about my situation, not the situation itself.) After I determine that, the next helpful question is, “How else could I think about this, so I feel better?” This helps me repair my defeating thinking. Sometimes it takes me awhile to figure out a more effective way to think, but generally I can, which result in my being not only happier, but more productive in what I really value.

      Thanks for your comment.

  • I know that I have been guilty of this also. But I am learning to step back and asses before I say yes to a new project.In staff meetings, committes or projects would come up and I would volunteer. Staff members would say can you take care of that. Until I was spinning wheels trying to get everything done.My new favorite line is “Let’s see what we can work out”. So I have not committed until I am sure that I have the time.

    I am finding that I have more time to take care of the important things.

  • Life is short and many of us want to do it all. Working hard, raising a family, social responsibilities, all pull on us in different directions, at once. Its hard to say no and easy to say yes, then reality hits. We have all been there, overcommitted, feeling guilty, unhappy, and not sure what to handle things. I think that this is a sign that something is out of balance in your life. You need to look at the big picture of who you are and how you want to live your life, your priorities. When things get overwhelming, its telling you to sit back and reflect.

  • I am a recovering “yes-aholic.” The technique that I find works best for me is to conjure up a mental image of my children when confronted with a request that I know will burden me beyond reason. My kids are the best reason that I have for not overloading my life, because they are the people who suffer most when I do.

  • A friend of mine is having this same problem right now. Maybe reading her RFL to her will back me up on what I’ve been trying to get her to believe; that she doesn’t necessarily have to fail.

  • It took me years to get over this, but I have learned through maturity and experience that being honest with people is the best way to go. If you say, “Let me check my calendar and get back to you,” then respond within the next day or so. It doesn’t help the person asking, who is trying to get people on board, to be delayed even further. If you really feel that you are not going to be able to fit in yet another project, let them know immediately.

  • My nagging little voice says, “If someone else does this they won’t do it as quickly…as well…the way I would…the way it has always been done…SO, it is easier to do it myself because it will fall back on me anyway.” I have learned that they may or may not do it as I would. But true leadership means that I have to give someone the opportunity to lead with his/her best self, to take responsibility and to get the job done. Otherwise it will come back to me because I have denied him/her the opportunity to learn or do something in a new and maybe better way. Then ultimately I will have to keep doing something when others can learn and relieve me from the responsibility.

    I guess that stepping back is leading with my best slef.


  • I like your message. The cognitive-behavioral approach does help us listen to ourselves. Your example is a classic overworked manager in over her head but driven by perfectionism and the desire to meet others expectations. That’s a hard pattern to change. This is who she is. That’s why she, “she just can’t do” what you asked. We want her to excercize personal authority and define her tasks in terms of her own agenda, capacity and style; but external demands dictate her responses. How does a talented leader stuck at this level in her development move to the next – where she can not only hear herself, but understand what she hears (and others saying the same)? This takes time, mentoring and opportunity, but I agree that the beginning of the road contains the steps you described. It gets me thinking about the type of leader it may take to help a person like that grow from his/her level of frustration. Thanks.

  • For the lady who wants to be liked and makes too many committments: You will not make friends if you take on too many responsibilities. It is better to have people wishing you could be on their committee, or organization’s board, than to have every organization you are involved with dissatisfied with your performance. We all have our limits; it is better to be the best at what you do, than to try to be more than you are capable of. People will like and appreciate you no matter what your work, or volunteer effort is, if you make committments you can keep. Even when you do that, those who do not appreciate your efforts may not in the minority, but they ought to be.

    Mark John Hunter

  • Wow, Dan….for a minute I thought you were talking about me! To be perfectly honest, I think my can’t-say-no-itis comes from a need for power and influence. It’s exciting to be on the inside of many different projects and initiatives. I liked what Sandra said about maturity having a part in changing some of these behaviours. I’ve learned that instead of trying to do it all myself, I can teach and coach new people to do those things. It still gives me a vital role in shaping my community and I’m helping to develop the next generation of leaders.

  • To get over this same problem, I devised a system by which to prioritize requests people make of me: Top priority: I have to do this (I have no choice); Second priority: I need to do this (it helps me achieve a goal or learn something, etc.) Third priority: I want to do this; and Last priority: I should do this (or they won’t like me or I’ll feel guilty). I avoid doing things that fall in the last category at all costs. That gives me more time to do things in the first three. This approach also gives me a way to step back from a request and be aware of where it falls in the priority ladder. Also, when I say no to someone, I use language like: “I am very flattered you asked me, but right now I’m concentrating my efforts on __________. Thanks again for asking me. I hope it’s a great success.”

  • Hi Dan,
    Wonder if you’re noticing that many more women than men have the same issue of being driven by the need to be liked. I know it is something I’ve given considerable thought to over the years. Now in my 69th year I find it easier to let go of those old, self-limiting ideas!

  • Dan,

    looks like your area of focus in the microcosm of self leadership has struck a chord with many. I used to suffer a lot more from ‘yesitis’ and in fact was fired from my very first job as a naive 18 yr old because I didn’t know how to handle people and their requests and thus became overloaded.

    I have actually found a degree of separation between the wanting to be liked and yesitis as well. Often they can be linked but I feel I am far better now at saying no and being strong about what I can and am unable to achieve due to time constraints. I use to have a boss who was, among other things, quite demanding and often unreasonably so. I had to learn to manage him and his requests in order that I would not make myself look bad due to him. It was a tricky situation as I was a contractor working on 6 mnth contracts each time and he was a man known for shipping people off that he didn’t like. My favourite line to use when he would come with yet another “I’ve promised this to this person by tomorrow and need to do it” would be “Which of these tasks that I am working on urgently for you would you like me to put aside in order to complete this new task”… amazing how an early life experience can be learned from and become a positive.

    The issue I suffer from most at the moment is purely wanting to be liked and/or because of doubting my business relationships with clients. I know this is a result of embarking on a new path for me in starting my own side business and realising clients could choose to take on another provider so in a way it’s good as it keeps me honest in maintaining a good relationship. But I know at times I can second guess myself too often and need to learn to be as confident in what I am providing in my own business as I am in working for an employer, where I am very confident… it’s the change from regular salary to business income that is the biggest source of fear.

  • Knowledge about the formation of self is a prerequisite to developing a positive self. Question : How is a positive self formed. How is the negative self installed? What inner powers do we possess that enables the positive self? Self-awareness is an intrinsic value that is very powerful when when the person is in touch with external identity when responding to social encounters. Self-image is the sum total of a persons thoughts and feelings. The way a person thinks influences the way they feels; thhe way a person thinks and feels encourages behavioral characteristics. Self-awareness is the capacity to accept challenge without feeling negative towards self via the realization that a person can only belittle the self; the self is the most abused person that exists but only when you succumb to a challenge due to obscured perception of the presented challenge.

  • One of the more powerful observations for powerful people is that you want to be liked and, therefore, can’t say no to people and take on too much. It was incredibly observant for Dan’s friend even to see that they are dropping balls and have taken on too much, instead of just making it mean that they are a failure and can’t get everything done.

    Great insight.

  • When someone asks me to do something they think I’m good at, I find my pride getting in the way of making the best decision. I want to “prove” to them they were right to have confidence in me. This is a trap that will eat up your time doing things others could be doing. I find I need a little time to decide what projects I take on, so I don’t give an immediate answer to time consuming requests. Being busy is not the same as being useful.

  • Dan,

    Thanks for writing about self-awareness that is the essence of personal coaching in your blog during International Coaching Week, Feb. 4-10.( Today, personal coaching is hot!

    “Coaching, while the latest and hottest trend to invade the workplace, is not really new. It is a new derivative of the best thinking in self-improvement since the turn of the 20th Century. Coaching found its place in history, and most recently in the business world, when it exploded into the corporate environment in the 1990s. Today, workplace coaching includes dozens of specialty fields (just like medicine) for every kind of business concern.” Dr. Patrick Williams ( stated to The Royal Society of Medicine in London, United Kingdom on January 30, 2004.

    Dr. Rey Carr ( tells us, “Coaching integrates the substance of many fields and the innovative thinking of great pioneers. Since 1995, the field has grown from two coach training schools to 180; from three professional associations to nine; and from zero magazines/journals focusing on coaching in the year 2000 to eleven in 2005.”

    As people seek better lives for themselves, either personally or professionally, or both, they’re more likely to find outside help to get them there: a professional coach. Here are some FAQs with answers for people considering a coaching relationship:

    1. Who are these people?

    There are an estimated 20,000 coaches around the globe. You can check out some personal and business coaching websites at the Coach to Coach Network website: Although coaching certificates are good things to look for, the most important credential a coach needs is your trust to help you get to that place of self-awareness.

    2. What kind of coach is right for me?

    Executive coaches, who typically work with executives in large firms and business owners in small companies, are brought in as (mostly) agenda-free surrogate mentors. That’s become especially important in this mobile age when it’s rare to find a lifelong veteran available to offer support and guidance.

    Life coaches, on the other hand, are brought in to help people reorder their life to get to where they want to be. Making hard choices about what’s important and paying attention to your intentions requires being listened to by a supportive, brainstorming and independent viewpoint.

    3. Who needs a coach?

    People seek out coaches for an infinite variety of reasons, but there are two typical coachees: people navigating some significant transition in their life or career and those who have some inkling that their leadership style or personality is holding them back.

    FORTUNE magazine reported that one reader said, “I went into the coaching experience kicking and screaming, at the insistence of my then-boss. And what an eye-opener it turned out to be. I won’t even go into the grim details of bad management habits I had unthinkingly developed in my 14-year career up to that point–but I will say that since I was ‘cured’ by 12 weeks of pretty intense coaching, I’ve been promoted three times.”

    4. What does coaching cost?

    Executive coaching engagements typically cost upward of $10,000 per person over a set period of time and include a few face-to-face meetings followed by email and telephone discussions. To help develop executives internally, rather than look for outsiders, companies are often more happy to foot the bill to fix dysfunctional leaders. For the return on investment (ROI) of executive coaching, click here.

    Some enterprising fast-trackers can and do shell out for their own advancement. As the price slides downward, though, the buyer should beware.

    5. What should you expect?

    Coaching is not a substitute for therapy and it’s not business strategy. The clients do the heavy lifting. The coach guides the person being coached by asking the right questions. The client has to figure out what behavior needs to change and how best to change it.

    6. Does coaching work?

    People seeking coaching are self-selecting, so the answer is yes. However, it is best to maintain a guarded edge during the coach selection process to make a good match between what you want out of the coaching experience and the person who can guide you throughout the coaching process. For why many small business owners resist being coached, click here.

    Ms. Vikki Brock, MBA and Master Certified Coach ( says, “We are standing on the shoulders of professions that have gone before us. Coaching is a consolidation and amalgamation of many fields and the integrative thinking of great pioneers. In its short history, we see considerable focus on recognizing the major distinctions between coaching and disciplines such as therapy, mentoring and consulting.”

    Sources: “Are You Being Coached?” FAST COMPANY, February 2005 and “Who’s Who in Coaching: Who Shaped It, Who’s Shaping It.” 2006 Proceedings of the International Coach Federation Research Symposium

  • This one has left me thinking. The tag line is always “lead with your best self”…which implies that multiple “selves” exist which could be doing the leading. One really needs to step back and experience the total self in order to evaluate, educate, and equip themselves to both understand what their best self is and to let it express itself via internal thoughts, choices, and actions. Isn’t this really what mentoring is all about? We all understand the incredible benefits behind mentoring others. I think we also need to understand the incredible benefits that can result from the pseudo mentoring of our best self. I know that I have some negative tapes that run amuck in my head/heart at times. Mine are not the usual “yessitis” but run more along the line of “I can’t because I’m not smart enough”. To counteract those tapes I not only notice them, but I have put certain people on notice in my life (my self mentors) that I will be asking them for help in understanding how those tapes are influencing my actions, I will be expecting honest answers, and they are welcome to make comments/suggestions. I do listen and I do try to evaluate, and I do try to implement change. My “mentors” (good friends) realize how eager I am to be the best that I can be and are extremely patient. They know that growth and change when viewed from the immediate or short-term perspective seems rather minimal, from the long-term perspective it is a completely different story. I also have a personal mission statement and identified personal goals. Putting my desire to notice the impact of those internal tapes into some sort of formalized written statement empowers me to hang in there and actually move towards that goal. Equally important is to notice how all consuming those internal tapes can become…the incredible power they can have…and how ultimately it is yourself that either feeds the tape or cuts off its power. Wasn’t it Eleanor Roosevelt that said “no one can make you feel inferior without your consent”? That speaks to our internal self as well as others. Don’t consent to being less than you can be; fight mediocrity with every tool in your tool kit, including noticing and ultimately not being influenced by those blasted internal tapes!

    • Lori,
      Thanks for the marvelous sharing of your ideas about how to “lead with your best self.” You are certainly right when you say that tag line implies multiple selves – in the sense that our behavior directly reflects the quality of our awareness and intention and thoughtfulness, and one might well say our love. At different times we bring various levels of these to the stage.
      I loved your thoughts about friends. I think it’s great that you’re open to them about how you are trying to grow. You’re fortunate to have such mentors.
      Thanks for that last thought in a long series of wonderful contributions. I am heartened to read so many people (often signing with their real names!) working at leading with humility and openness. I don’t think people would ever have had these thoughts, let alone shared them publicly at the time that my dad was a manager at Ford some 25-50 years ago. I think that bodes well for our kids, our fellow employees, and those whom we manage.
      — Dan

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